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Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address 2015

Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address is an annual forum for ideas relating to the creation and performance of Australian music. Named after the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, it has been igniting debate and highlighting crucial issues since its establishment in 1999.

The 2015 Peggy Glanville Hicks Address was delivered by Richard Gill OAM in Sydney at the Conservatorium of Music (26 October) and in Melbourne at Deakin Edge Theatre, Federation Square (30 October), and recorded and broadcast by ABC Classic FM.

Richard Gill: A Case for New Music

I’d first like to thank the New Music Network for asking me to present this address. A definition of terms from the outset might help to set some boundaries. By ‘making a case’ I mean to put forward ideas and strategies to promote new music. By ‘new music’, I mean that music often referred to as contemporary classical music - an inherently clumsy term, but I am hoping we all know and understand what I am talking about and the music to which I refer.

It is music composed by the current crop of Australian composers and their international counterparts who write for symphony orchestras, other large ensembles, chamber music ensembles and combinations of these instrumental forces, along with vocal works, including operas, choral music, songs and music theatre works.

The extraordinary amount of new music composed within the popular culture, and all that is implied by that, is outside the boundaries of this talk. One day, however, I hope we will actually talk about music without these artificial divisions. It is interesting to see in the 2016 Sydney Festival brochure the two categories: Classical/Opera in one column and Music in another.

I will deal with this concept of new music in three distinct sections:

(i) new music for the concert hall and opera house;

(ii) new chamber music and the particularly remarkable rise of small ensembles commissioning new music;

(iii) music education’s responsibility to new music.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that music education has been included as part of my address. Music education is at the very heart of this matter and it is time that we took music education seriously in Australia, especially in regard to new music. There will more of this later, however.

Referring to the concert hall and the track record Australia’s symphony orchestras have in presenting new Australian music, the following was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 23, 2014:

Only seven per cent of more than 200 concerts performed by the SSO this year were of Australian works, according to a survey of this year's orchestra programs by advocacy body the Music Trust. Other orchestras such as the Melbourne and Queensland Symphony Orchestras played even fewer Australian works despite receiving millions of dollars of taxpayer support.

The trust's director, Dr Richard Letts, says taxpayer-subsidised orchestras presented few Australian works: "Among the opera companies the situation is dire; there is only one that will present an Australian work in 2014 – the Victorian Opera."

That sole Australian opera was The Riders by composer Iain Grandage and librettist Alison Croggon, based on the novel by Tim Winton. (I know that to be true because I commissioned The Riders during my tenure as Music Director of Victorian Opera.)

These findings are backed up by the Australian Music Centre, which found only 109 works were by Australian composers or 4.68 per cent out of 2,332 works played by major orchestras in the two years to June 2011. When the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras' programs were assessed in the year to June 2013, only 8.65 per cent of works performed were Australian.

The chief executive of the Australian Music Centre, John Davis, says state-based orchestras have become risk-averse since being devolved from the ABC.

"They all say that as soon as they program a contemporary work … there is an immediate fall-away in box office", Davis says. "But is this not a failure of their marketing departments – not able to find an audience for contemporary works?"

In contrast, smaller companies programmed a greater proportion of Australian work. "Studies have shown that in the small-to-medium sector, there is more Australian content, more artistic [and financial] risk-taking, and it is where the innovation happens", Davis says.

End of quote.

We need to realise that a huge percentage of Australians have no idea what we do and don’t really care. There are extremely serious social and educational issues plaguing this country at the moment, which are, as far as governments are concerned, more important to the nation than the next new Australian orchestral work or the next new opera.

However, I do believe that new Australian works are important and belong within the fabric of a very complex society.

We need perspective in these matters and we need to examine the root causes of these circumstances.

There was a time when there was only ever new music. In fact, it was an incredibly extensive period of time lasting from when mankind first became of aware of music and later began to notate and consciously compose music.

This lasted, more or less, until the advent of the recording. Recorded sound put a brand new perspective on music and listeners became used to hearing the same piece of music again and again. 

This is not an inherently bad thing but it does place the idea of an ever-increasing repertoire of new music in a difficult circumstance. The advent of film, video, DVD and the like has also had an impact on new music in two ways. More composers than ever have had opportunities to compose music for film, DVD, video games and so on, and this music has in turn had a profound effect on compositional styles.

The breadth and depth has changed dramatically and the audience base has grown exponentially. Technology has, in part, had an impact on the way in which we listen to and understand music and has also had an impact on composers of orchestral music. Again, referring to the 2016 Sydney Festival, the combination of the Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring, according to the brochure, will explore reel-to-reel tape, turntables, along with further exploration of the pipe-organ in conjunction with electronics and percussion, and, one imagines, the instruments commonly found in the Art Orchestra itself.

I became aware of the existence of orchestral music in the 1950s when I started going to concerts at the Sydney Town Hall, performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. To my recollection, there was almost no contemporary music of any description programmed.

The programs often followed a formula of overture, concerto, interval, and symphony. To say that every program was structured in that way is not entirely fair, but that formula certainly existed. There were interesting program ideas that cropped up from time to time and towards the sixties programming concepts began to change significantly.

The advent of the Sydney Symphony prom concerts in the 1960s saw an increase in the amount of new music being played. These concerts sold out and the essentially youthful audiences showed their appreciation for the new music in all sorts of ways. The inclusion of contemporary music in symphony orchestra programming, at least as far as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was concerned, had changed forever and for the better.

Gradually, more and more Australian works were being included in orchestral programming, albeit at a relatively slow rate and equally gradually, audiences became aware of the existence of Australian composers. Music of Carl Vine, Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards was included on the orchestra’s international tours, presenting Australian composers to the world.

In my time as a conductor working with the network orchestras, some of the country’s youth orchestras and the Australian Youth Orchestra, I have conducted the music of well over forty Australian composers including works composed by well-established composers and emerging composers.

Many of these works have been world premieres, commissioned by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for its Meet The Music series.

As Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Education Program from 1994 until 2013, I made certain that there was an abundance of new music in the schools concerts, including Australian, European and some American music. We also featured an Australian composer of the year, which included a work of this composer for every grade level so that schools could build their resources of Australian music.

As a result, thousands of school children have had live orchestral experiences of new music, which they received much more readily and with much more acceptance than their adult counterparts tend to do, demonstrating that if you approach them at the right age, before biases and musical tastes are created, children will readily accept a whole range of music and approach it fearlessly.

I have programmed Schoenberg, Webern and contemporary Australian music to children who accepted it and talked about it freely and interestingly. It was not a big deal, to use the vernacular. They heard it all as music.

The audiences attending the Sydney Symphony’s Meet the Music series are generally very responsive to the new music programmed and listen to the works with great attention and focus. The composers are well received and the teachers of the students attending these concerts realise the enormous musical benefits received from attending a live performance of a world premiere, or indeed any new work being performed.

Artistic Directors and Artistic Administrators of these programs all have views about how contemporary music should be presented. Some think new music should have its own special concert series, while others think it is better included in a conventional program.

If the latter option is taken there is often a serious backlash from subscribers who feel cheated when a new work has been included in a program. This tells you more about the subscriber than the program.

There will never be a circumstance where all subscribers are happy with every program an Artistic Director or Artistic Administrator has produced. For some people there will never be enough new music and for others there will always be too much new music. For some opera lovers, opera begins and ends with Wagner. Wagner’s Ring encircles them. For others La Traviata, alternating nightly with La Bohème is a type of musical heaven. Some concert-goers will go as far as, but not embrace, Stravinsky. Everything after 1911 is described as rubbish by some of these people. Others have no interest in the 19th century and want to hear only new music.

There is no universal market or universal audience. If there were to be a universal audience, life would be very dull and marketing people would have nothing to do.

However, in the case of new music there has been progress, albeit slow, and we need to remind constantly those organisations in receipt of public monies that they have a duty and a responsibility to commission new music regularly, and consistently, in order to develop a strong musical culture and a thriving community of creative musical thinkers who have something powerful to say. John Davis’s and Richard Lett’s comments in the Herald article do this.

However, I believe, those who create the programs for Australia’s publicly funded ensembles are well aware of their responsibility to Australian composers. In most cases, I believe these responsibilities are taken seriously. It is a matter of keeping the case at the forefront of the funding bodies’ minds and all of us advocating constantly and consistently for better circumstances for the rehearsal and performance of new music.

Perhaps we have, also, to rethink entirely what the role of a symphony orchestra is in the 21st century. Perhaps we have to rethink the role of an opera company in the 21st century. No one organisation has a divine right to audiences. No composer has a divine right to have her or his music performed.

It is highly likely that the role of the orchestra is changing fundamentally and the concept of presenting new music in special circumstances, in special halls and smaller venues, allows for a fuller exploration of new repertoire creating a whole new field of specialisation, not unlike the early music specialisations which now abound all over the world.

In other words there are now specialist audiences who want specialist treatment. This includes audiences who want to hear only music from the nineteenth century and the less offensive music from the twentieth century.

There are also audiences who are desperate to hear new music and couldn’t care less about the general repertoire.

We now live in times when symphony orchestras play programs known as commercial weeks. Accompanying singers such as Burt Bacharach, playing soundtracks to films, playing popular programs of Broadway musicals and the like, are now part of every classical musician’s duties in a symphony orchestra. Popular musicians, jazz musicians, folk musicians and the like working alongside orchestral players are now regular occurrences in concert halls everywhere.

The audiences who turn up to these commercial events are essentially drawn by the artist, for example, Burt Bacharach and his music. That the orchestra is playing the entire night to accompany Bacharach is incidental in the mind of the audience. They have come for the music they know and love so well, sung by an artist they know and love. How do they know this music? Why do they like it? Worth thinking about in my view.

The audiences for commercial events tend not to turn up for a Sibelius festival or a celebration of Janacek’s music, demonstrating that there is very little, if any, cross fertilisation between those who attend commercial events and those who attend standard symphony concerts.

Next year, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will present two concerts of contemporary music at Carriageworks, curated by Australian composer, Brett Dean. This is an idea rather along the lines of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis New Music Festival to be conducted by American Robert Spano from the 9th to the 21st of May at the Melbourne Recital Hall.

Initially, in a discussion with a friend, I expressed the idea that these series would have a ghetto effect on new music by removing it almost entirely from the concert hall and relegating it to venues not considered to be mainstream.

However, after this discussion, I was persuaded that this thinking is probably incorrect. It is better to have the music at any cost than not to have it at all. Contemporary classical music, to use, as I have suggested, a clumsy phrase, is in fact a form of specialisation. As the new music becomes more and more complex, more specialisation is required from the musicians to realise the complexities of the composers’ scores and many of these concerts attract people who would never attend an all Tchaikovsky program or a Beethoven cycle.  The use of complex technologies in these concerts also has a deleterious effect on some listeners who feel that anything, which is not directly acoustically produced, isn’t music.

This argument is not winnable. Having experienced music which uses complex technologies and indeed performed some, I can only say that I find it incredibly exciting and endlessly fascinating. We ignore technology at our peril and we should be encouraging our composers to experiment with as much new material as possible.

Conversely, the spectacular growth in the performance of early music is, in essence, a type of exploration of new ideas about old music and has the power to make the music sound fresh or new, if you will. Sydney Festival has invited Anima Eterna, Brugge, conducted by Jos Van Immerseel, to perform the nine Beethoven symphonies “the way they were meant to be heard.” Interestingly, we now have an orchestra in this country, which can do exactly that, orchestra seventeen88.

New knowledge about early music, new research into the literature and commentaries from the periods, and new evidence from primary sources, are all informing musical practice internationally.

This has had a significant impact on the performance of music from the early Baroque through to the early twentieth century. It has also had a significant impact on the repertoire once played by the symphony orchestra.

Early music specialists have gone well beyond Brahms symphonies in their exploration of historically informed performance practices, known colloquially as HIP, and audiences who would once have listened to a symphony orchestra play Bach, now want to hear this music on period instruments performed with informed interpretations.

Again, this has had a significant impact on the role of the symphony orchestra in the 21st century. It is not, however, a reason to say that composers should not be commissioned to write for this ensemble but perhaps commissioners should be exploring more imaginative ways of commissioning new orchestral music.

When commissioning new opera, a very different kettle of fish from the commissioning of orchestral and chamber music, it is hard to break the pattern of conservative thinking, which is strongly associated with this art form.

I know numbers of opera lovers who think that any opera by Britten is musically offensive and strange. Stravinsky’s Rake's Progress is, to these people, simply a mish-mash of sound. Puccini is perfect and Mascagni and Leoncavallo are tolerable. Operatic music ended with the death of the character Liu in Puccini’s Turandot, coincidentally premiered on Anzac Day, 1926.

January 15, 2015 began with a reading of an article, again, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I quote: "Fundamentally, it's because of a lack of support from the public and a lack of support from sponsors to be involved in presenting new Australian operas," Opera Australia's artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, said.

He then goes on to talk about The Rabbits by Kate Miller-Heidke with a libretto by Lally Katz, programmed for next year’s Sydney Festival.

“I think there is an audience who really wants to hear what Kate has to say, musically and dramatically," he said. "With a number of contemporary composers, quite frankly, the public isn't interested in what they've got to say."

The question I want to ask is: How does Lyndon Terracini know that? What research has he done and what are the figures to support statements of that nature? Can he name the composers the public doesn’t want to hear?

The article goes on to say:

“On a more intimate scale, the Sydney Chamber Opera has demonstrated there is an audience, however small, for new Australian works. The company's latest production, Mayakovsky, a new Australian work by composer Michael Smetanin and librettist Alison Croggon, sold out four performances at Carriageworks' 300-seat Bay 2.’

Andrew Taylor goes on to talk about Victorian Opera, saying, and I quote: “The Melbourne-based company has commissioned at least one new work every year since 2007 and programmed four new works this year. Victorian Opera executive director Andrew Snell said the company's new works tended to be smaller chamber operas that were cheaper to stage and for audiences to see.

"It can be difficult to interest audiences in new work when there isn't a strong national culture for presenting new opera," he said. "The more we present new work in the cultural landscape, the more people become open to the idea."

The question then has to be asked: How do I know that there are audiences for new opera and what research have I done?

Victorian Opera is a company about which I know a fair amount. I was the founding Artistic Director and assumed the role in late 2005, relinquishing my task in January 2013 after a seven- year stint. In seven years we published seven financial surpluses.

The company performed eight Australian works in seven years, and workshopped over nine new embryonic works in a program called New Opera Ventures Australia.

Interestingly enough, audiences came to this new work because it was there. Figures are available. We received overwhelmingly positive feedback about our new work and the way in which we presented it and I’m delighted to know that this aspect of my work, together with the Youth Opera, have been maintained.

For the record, some of the public hated what we did. I received the occasional six-page hate letter, balanced by a few one-liner emails of congratulation, but we did establish interest and a debate.

At the conclusion of every performance the company gave, we surveyed audiences about each and every aspect of our work. How did you hear about this? What did you think? Why did you come? And so on. Over a period of time we built a massive database of information about new work, standard repertoire, community outreach work, our education program and our Youth Opera. From this we could deduce trends, attitudes and audience behaviour patterns and established very clearly that if you offer new work on a consistent basis audiences will come.

As an employee of the then Australian Opera from January 1990 to October 1996, I witnessed Moffatt Oxenbould’s commitment to new work and was involved with productions of The Eighth Wonder, Lindy, The Golem and Mer de Glace, an opera in which Lyndon Terracini sang a principal role. Four world premieres in six years, one, The Eighth Wonder, with a return season.

The surest way not to have people turn up to new work is not to do it.

A more productive, more imaginative and much happier circumstance can be found within the practitioners of contemporary chamber music.

The chamber music circumstance is so radically different from the symphonic and operatic experiences, that it is a delight to observe the increasing number of new small ensembles commissioning new music and continuing to inspire composers, performers and listeners alike.

I called the Australian Music Centre to see if there was a register of these groups. Unfortunately, there is no such register, so there is a job for someone to coordinate this information, even though there is a list of the leading new music ensembles as members of the New Music Network. The imagination of these unstoppable people is to be applauded. Their commitment to new music, without exception, is exemplary.

These groups take large risks, explore new boundaries, test the public’s appetite for new music and consistently challenge composers to provide music for their seemingly unquenchable musical thirst.

One striking example is the Melbourne based Plexus ensemble consisting of violinist, Monica Curro, pianist, Stefan Cassamenos and clarinettist, Philip Arkinstall.

Plexus, in its short period of existence, has commissioned over 100 Australian composers and premiered 22 new works in its first year. This group is an exemplar for all Australian musicians.

Ensemble Offspring is another such group. Having been in existence for over twenty years, Ensemble Offspring could be considered to be Australia’s leading contemporary music ensemble providing engaging, challenging and thought-provoking music at every concert.

Current personnel include Claire Edwardes and Damien Ricketson as Artistic Directors, supported by the outstanding talents of Veronique Serret, Jason Noble, Lamorna Nightingale, Bree van Reyk and Zubin Kanga. Damien Ricketson announced today that he is stepping down as an Artistic Director at the end of this year and will assume a role within the Conservatorium.  I imagine, however, that he will continue to write and perform new music.

Now a very well-established ensemble, Ensemble Offspring has an enviable track record of commissioning and performing brand new and recently composed music from all over the world.

Musica Viva, Australia’s leading chamber music organisation, has a schools program providing chamber-sized ensembles to schools, many of whose members are gifted improvisers and composers.

Hundreds of thousands of Australian school children continue to have access to this program and indeed the presentation of original music, arranged music and improvised music is at the core of this program’s educational and musical philosophy.

In this sense, the chamber music circumstance is alive and incredibly healthy. Within this spectrum there is the solo performer who commissions new work and presents it to an ever-increasingly engaged audience. One such performer is Melbourne violinist, Sarah Curro who, from her own resources, commissions composers to write music for her spectacular collection of violins with special emphasis on amplified violins. Her legacy of new commissions is hugely praiseworthy and she continues to promote new music in her special way.

New music can be promoted and audiences will come. It can be done. However, it seems that the bigger the organisation the more difficult it is to commission and perform new work. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that things have changed spectacularly in this country in my lifetime and continue to change.

Complacency, self-satisfaction and a lack of concern for the common good are the enemies of creativity. Advocating aggressively by constantly stressing the negative is also counter-productive. We need advocacy which is good, which is thoughtful and productive, presented by musicians who understand the importance of new music to a society.

At the outset of this talk I said that I would propose some ideas which might help the cause of new music.

In order to enhance the importance of music in and to a society, it is essential that the music education, which takes place, or should take place, in the early years of a child’s life, be as comprehensive and as vital as possible.

We all need to work together to promote music education locally and at the national level.

We need to agree on the following things:

1. that every child in Australia should have access to a thoroughly qualified and properly trained music teacher;

2.  that we teach music because it is good and unique and no other justification is required;

3.  that we teach music so that children can make their own music - that is new music;

4.  that we teach music based on singing, and that all conceptual information related to the teaching of music comes from singing;

5. that we teach music so that children can learn to develop an appreciation and understanding of the music of others.

In the schools is where the music of the future will be found. This is where the new creative minds will be developed, where boundaries will be explored, where technology will be better understood by the new generations than any preceding generation and where we hope brave new worlds of imagination, new thoughts and new inventions will emerge.

Currently, I am trying to persuade as many music organisations in the country to join the Australian Society of Music Education, Australia’s peak body, founded purely for the purposes of advocating music education, so that we can form a powerful lobby at State and Federal Government levels. Were all educational organisations to be under one umbrella organisation, ASME, it would represent a powerful constituency to which governments might potentially listen.

A program to assist all of this in the form of the National Music Teachers Mentoring program, under the auspices of the Australian Youth orchestra, is now well and truly underway; a program with State and Federal government support. This program harnesses resources which already exist, in the form of specialist teachers working as mentors alongside other teachers.

New South Wales is leading the way with this program and has committed to maintain the program for 2016. Western Australia and Victoria are currently engaged with the program and South Australia and the Northern territory will come on board in 2016.

Along with this program, I am currently in conversation with a tertiary institution in this country to establish the National Institute of Music Teaching. This would be a specialist institution involving practice and research into the teaching of music and would encompass all aspects of music including music of the popular cultures. It would also have a school attached as a demonstration school encompassing classes from pre-school to upper primary, and would be in essence, a teacher training facility.

In order to elevate the status of music teaching and teacher training, it might be considered a good idea to have all lecturers in music education at all our universities and other tertiary institutions, teaching in classrooms on a regular basis so that the students to whom they lecture on method and classroom procedures can see their own lecturers teaching.  A typical timetable would be fifty per cent of the time teaching in a school, observed by students studying to be teachers, and fifty per cent of the time lecturing on method and classroom management to students.

There is wide acceptance for this idea amongst the members of the teaching profession to whom I have spoken and it would certainly lift the profiles of the tertiary teachers to see them all working in classrooms on a regular basis.

Working together we can all make a huge difference to music education. We need to maintain the autonomy of the teacher and the way in which the music is taught. However, we do need also to acknowledge that there is a common body of knowledge which has an impact on all music and that the teaching of this knowledge  leading to the reading and writing of music is not an especially burdensome thing to do for someone who knows how.

Together we can change the musical landscape of Australia. Together, we can, if we invest wholeheartedly in music education, raise an ever-increasing awareness of new music and bring with us whole new generations of composers, performers and listeners who will have a strong appreciation and refined understanding of music, especially new music.

We must do this. Our very future as a nation depends on it.

Thank you.